Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD headphone amplifier / DAC

There are reviews out there of uber-priced components that jump from superlative to superlative. The hyperbole can be numbing and over time calcify into jadedness. Yet there are those moments where everything’s clicking in a system. They cut through that hard-boiled shell and turn you back into the awestruck budding audiophile. Maybe you’re lucky and you’re reminded of this feeling every time you turn on your gear and cue up a track. It was how I felt after I dropped the Simaudio Moon Neo 430HAD into my headphone system.

Description

The 430HAD is a serious piece of audio equipment clad in masculine black steel. It’s more portly than the previous size champ, the Airist Audio Heron 5, and not likely to be unassuming when placed on a desk. It’s quite hefty too. Since its dimensions largely match the rest of the Neo series, this implies a homebound presence where it can be stacked with the rest of its siblings into a tower of Simaudio power. Case edges are rounded over and panels are finished in differing textures / materials to provide a little tactile and visual variety. Overall, the design and workmanship of the amp itself befits the price tag. The one weakness is the remote – it’s made of cheap plastic, feels rather flimsy, and the buttons are pretty small. Admittedly, I’d rather have most of the effort go to the circuitry powering the headphones than a fancy remote.

The front panel is tastefully laid out. The large, sculpted volume knob and tiny silver buttons have high quality actions and feel. The volume knob spins smoothly and freely – no potentiometer here! Instead, the input signal is attenuated in the analog domain using a DAC in current steering mode. Neat. To the left of the volume knob is a 1/4 inch headphone socket. Above that is a 1/8 inch input for connection to the analog out of a media player. Hidden behind a sliding transparent panel are the balanced headphone outputs – a single 4-pin XLR and a pair of 3-pin XLR jacks which sit on the right flank of a large segmented red LED display. The silver buttons above that display select the gain, power up / down the amp from standby, select the active input from the rear panel, activate the custom crossfeed filter, mute audio output, or select the media player input for amplification.

The rear panel sports all manner of inputs and outputs. For the optional digital section, you have a choice of optical (Toslink), SPDIF (two unbalanced coax inputs), and USB. Analog inputs include two pairs of unbalanced RCA and a single pair of XLR jacks. Analog outputs are all unbalanced, with a fixed and variable line level out. Curiously, there is no balanced output which seems a little out of place since all the amplifiers in the Neo line are fully balanced, like the 430HAD. An IEC inlet allows you to swap power cables to your heart’s content (and perhaps your spouse’s consternation) with a co-located power rocker switch allowing you to truly shut down all the internals.

Operation

If you don’t have the onboard DAC option installed, operation is pretty straightforward – flip the rocker switch in the back to ‘on’ and press the ‘Standby’ button on the front face plate to take the amp out of hibernation. Those with aftermarket power cords take note, the housing may make it difficult to access the rocker switch. You might have to flip it on before you insert your power cord.

I tried the onboard DAC option with Linux / ALSA and it worked flawlessly with PCM files out of the box. Windows users will need to download a driver.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to test DSD functionality with the onboard DAC over USB. My stereo setup also precluded me from trying the 430HAD as a preamp since my integrated amp (an Ayre AX-5 Twenty) doesn’t have a traditional preamp section that can be separated from a power amp section.

A word of caution to those with sensitive headphones – the Neo 430HAD is not the quietest of amplifiers. On the LCD-XC’s I could barely detect a low level hiss when inserting the balanced connector. The even more sensitive NAD VISO HP50’s picked up the hiss as well through its single-ended connection. This may or may not be a problem depending on how loud you like your music. However, headphones like the HD 600 and HD 800 S were absolutely quiet at the volume levels that I’m comfortable listening at.

Listening

This is where things get interesting. The source I usually use for headphone listening these days is the Ayre QB-9 DSD and it has both balanced and single-ended outputs. Given that the 430HAD is fully balanced, it made sense to wire everything up with balanced cables, even the headphones. Of course, that would be something of a cheat so I also listened to the other three possible combinations of inputs / outputs to get a bearing on how much this aspect might affect the resultant sound quality (and it does). Throw the onboard DAC into the mix as well as the crossfeed circuit and things really get hairy. So please keep in mind that the bulk of the impressions I’m going to lay out will be in the fully balanced configuration with the crossfeed circuit set to off, the onboard DAC bypassed by the Ayre QB-9 DSD, and the Audeze LCD-XC’s connected via 4-pin XLR. However, I will state what I think are the differences between this setup and others towards the end of this section.

As I played track after track on the 430HAD several adjectives popped into my head – graceful, powerful, warm, natural. It masterfully walked the tightrope between musical warmth and inner detail, macrodynamic contrast and touch. While listening to the Moon, I got the sense of a live event happening before me, rather than a superb reproduction of a recording.

I usually like to to lead off with “I’m Old Fashioned” from Blue Train (CD, Blue Note 53428), this time taken from the late 90’s Blue Note CD reissue. The 430 HAD didn’t disappoint. Coltrane’s sax was reproduced with a bell-like glow that contained a marvelous blend of tone and inner detail. This continued with Fuller’s trombone and Drew’s piano solo, whose notes had such realistic timbre and expressiveness that I felt wholly engaged, yet relaxed. Kelly’s closing trumpet solo seemed to be placed in a real space with air to spare. Chambers’ bass sounded round and weighty, but perhaps just a hair overdone. The brushed snare didn’t seem to be as fleshed out or present in the mix as I’m used to, though I could’ve been distracted by the lovely handling of the brass and piano. However, I still felt this rendition was one of the finest I’ve heard – whether on headphones or speakers.

Spatial resolution was another of the 430HAD’s strong suits. “Al vaivén de mi carreta” from Afrocubism (CD, World Circuit / Nonesuch 525993-2) possessed realistic depth and exquisite layering. Vocals floated in space in front of the pulsing beats of the hand drums and the chanting guitars. The Moon certainly had the refinement to portray the attack of each plucked guitar string counterbalanced with a pure reproduction of the subsequent tone. An almost-spooky realistic reproduction of the impact and dynamics of meaty palms striking drumheads that wafted back and forth within the soundstage anchored the mix. In and of itself this kind of performance was amazing, yet the Moon pulled it all off so effortlessly that it was all the more impressive.

This amp was no slouch on classical music either. It easily conveyed the scale and dynamics of “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets (CD, Decca London 289 460 606-2) as well as tenderly captured the drama and sweeping emotion of Rachmaninoff’s final movement from his Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD, Chesky CD2). With regard to the former, the Neo barely broke a sweat telegraphing the bold confidence of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal. The images it laid down were huge with convincingly real timbre. On the latter, Wild’s stunning skill at the keyboard and the London Royal Philharmonic’s massed strings flowed forth with a warmth and grace that belied the seemingly limitless reserves of power the Neo had on tap. In both instances, I felt I could pinpoint the performers in their own distinct space without losing the sense that they were part of a greater whole. The Neo easily plowed the electrons into my LCD-XC’s as the pipe organ thundered its opening chords during the finale of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 (CD layer, Telarc SACD-60634). The soundscape was deep and reverberation from the basses was plentiful, but not overbearing. Simply excellent.

The Neo dove comfortably into more contemporary fare. The bright nature of Florence + the Machine’s latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (CD, Republic B0023122-02) can be fatiguing on the ears, but the Neo portrayed “Third Eye” with the utmost clarity and finesse and leaving out the edge. Again, a sense of depth to the soundscape was readily apparent and timbres were spot on. Welch’s vocals have a tendency to sound a little hard – not so, here. There was an intoxicating ease that permeated throughout her performance. Hand claps sounded, well, like hand claps. Cymbals sounded brassy, with a finely textured decay and shimmer. On “Go Quietly” from the Cold War Kids’ latest album Hold My Home (CD, Downtown DWT70397), Willett’s vocals had an immediate, palpable quality. Backing vocals and instruments each occupied their own space. The drum kit possessed good body and impact, but wasn’t quite as tight as I’ve heard elsewhere. The entire track sounded free from compression when the mix turned a little dense.

The Neo 430HAD remained unflappable switching between the Audeze LCD-XC, the Sennheiser HD 600, and (briefly) the Sennheiser HD 800 and 800 S. Its superb abilities in spatial resolution, layering, and tonal purity were apparent on all of them. It let each headphone’s particular qualities shine through. I never felt that the Neo restricted the performance of any of the transducers I used.

Alternate Configurations

Now this is all well and good for those with fully balanced sources and headphones that can be connected for balanced drive. What about a single-ended setup? I won’t sugarcoat it – my experience tells me that you’ll leave some performance on the table. This was the case whether the source was connected to the balanced input and the headphones driven single-ended, or with the source single-ended and the headphones driven balanced, or both hooked up in single-ended fashion. Images were a little flatter and soundstage depth was shortened. Timbres were lighter – “sunnier” might be the apt descriptor – and the ease that I experienced before was a tad muted. The Neo never sounded strained, but the music didn’t flow as freely or gracefully as with the fully balanced system.

The onboard DAC exhibited much of the same qualities as the unbalanced configurations. It output a drier, tighter presentation with a lighter tone than the Ayre QB-9 DSD in balanced mode. The sound wasn’t as palpably immediate and I got the distinct sense of listening to a recording rather than a live event. The soundstage also collapsed inward a little further with images wanting to crowd around the center – especially evident on loudspeakers. It’s possible that the DAC module’s output stages aren’t fully balanced, given its sonic performance. In my opnion, the Moon Neo 430HAD deserves a better source than the built-in option and most should take a pass unless it’s required out of convenience.

I tried the crossfeed circuit only briefly. Once you activate it, images move a little more to the front and out. The effect is tasteful and subtle and there didn’t seem to be any obvious deleterious effects to the sound.

Comparisons

The only amp I have on hand that even remotely approaches the quality of the 430HAD is my DNA Sonett 2. When pitted against the fully balanced configuration, the Sonett 2 is hopelessly outclassed by the realistic tone, textures, and imaging of the Moon. However, when the playing field was leveled somewhat by driving both from the single-ended outputs of the QB-9 DSD (but still using balanced drive for the headphones), the Sonett 2 proved to be a worthy competitor. It still couldn’t match the Neo’s ease with dynamic contrast borne, no doubt, from its seemingly limitless power reserves, but it stood toe-to-toe with the 430HAD in terms of touch, clarity, and tone. The Sonett 2 also possessed slightly tighter bass and a more mid-hall feel to the presentation, so some might actually prefer the Sonett 2 to the Neo, again, if the source is single-ended.

Conclusions

Yes, the Moon Neo 430HAD is big, heavy, and expensive. But, in my opinion, it’s worth the inconvenience and expense. If you have the ability to keep the entire chain balanced from end to end, you’ll be privy to some of the very finest audio to be had anywhere on the planet today. Hyperbole? Not to these ears.

 

Associated Equipment

Headphones – Audeze LCD-XC, Sennheiser HD 600, Sennheiser HD 800 S

Loudspeakers – Vandersteen 3A Signatures

Amplification – Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty, Donald North Audio Sonett 2

Sources – Ayre Acoustics QB-9 DSD, onboard optional DAC

Cabling – Analysis Plus Pro Oval Studio XLR, Analysis Plus Pro Power Oval, Analysis Plus Power Oval 2, Analysis Plus Power Oval Ten, Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8

Power – Bryston BIT-15

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